Abmas leads crop of potential mid-major NCAA bracket busters

INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t long ago that Max Abmas was just another overlooked recruit who didn’t even get a schoarship offer from a school within his home state.

One incredible season has changed everything.

He’s made a rapid rise to become the nation’s leading scorer for an Oral Roberts team in its first NCAA Tournament since 2008. And he’s part of a group of players at mid-major programs capable of busting brackets with big March moments that live on in tournament lore.

It’s happened before: Guys like Stephen Curry and Ja Morant riding tournament heroics to upset wins that made them household names on college basketball’s biggest stage.

The 6-foot-1, 165-pound Abmas would love to do the same.

“I’ve kind of looked at it – Steph Curry, Ja Morant, they had great tournaments,” the sophomore said. “So I mean, it’s kind of one of the things you think about. But for me, it’s just staying within the offense and just doing my role, whatever the team needs me to do.”

The NCAA Tournament’s one-and-done format is so adored because even the heaviest of favorites can be tripped up by a plucky underdog. But it takes players like Abmas, UNC Greensboro’s Isaiah Miller, Ohio’s Jason Preston, Winthrop’s Chandler Vaudrin and Utah State big man Neemias Queta, among others, to make those upsets happen.

Some may be NBA prospects, but for now they are focused on sticking around Indiana for more than just one tournament game, even though they are playing for double-digit seeds facing bigger or more athletic opponents from power conferences.

That’s just fine for North Texas guard Javion Hamlet, who hit the go-ahead basket in the Conference USA Tournament championship win. His 13th-seeded Mean Green face Purdue on Friday.

“I wouldn’t want it no other way,” said Hamlet, a two-time all-conference pick and former league player of the year. “I’ve been an underdog all my life.”

The potential pros include UNC Greensboro’s Miller, who has been a force at both ends of the court for the 13th-seeded Spartans entering Saturday’s game against Florida State.

The 6-foot, 190-pound senior is a two-time Southern Conference player of the year who has also been league defensive player of the year for three straight seasons. He averages 19.3 points and 6.9 rebounds after withdrawing from the NBA draft to return to school, and he offers plenty of athleticism – enough to casually throw an alley-oop pass off the backboard to himself for a breakaway dunk in a December game.

“He’s the most competitive young man I’ve ever been around,” Spartans coach Wes Miller said. “And so as the moment gets bigger, and the stage gets bigger, he usually rises up to meet it. It’s been that way for his entire career. … In those moments, he generally makes a bunch of spectacular plays and shows why he belongs on any stage in basketball in my opinion.”

It’s similar to what UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack sees in 6-4 senior JaQuori McLaughlin. The Big West Conference player of the year averages 16.9 points while shooting nearly 53% entering the 12th-seeded Gauchos’ game against Creighton on Saturday.

“I think JaQuori’s an NBA point guard,” Pasternack said. “The reason for that is because he’s the total package. … He’s consumed with the game. He doesn’t party. He doesn’t care about anything else except being an NBA player and I really believe that he will be one.”

The 7-foot Queta at 11th-seed Utah State and freshman big man Johni Broome at 14th-seeded Morehead State offer similar, game-tilting upside in the paint. Broome, in particular, is surging entering the NCAAs for the Eagles, finishing with 27 points and 12 rebounds in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game while grabbing 11 rebounds or more in six straight games entering Friday’s matchup with West Virginia.

As for Abmas, he’s gone from averaging 14.5 points as a freshman playing off the ball to a national-best 24.2 points in a more ball-dominant role for the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles, who face Ohio State on Friday.

He is the only player in Division I this season to have crossed the 40-point mark twice. And he was efficient, shooting 48% from the floor, 43% on 3-pointers and nearly 90% on free throws.

Not bad for a biomedical chemistry major who came out of Rockwall, Texas, with scholarship offers only to Army, Navy, Air Force and Marist.

A big game against the Buckeyes? He won’t be overlooked again.

“Definitely as a competitor, when you play against the big schools, it’s like that’s one of the schools that overlooked you,” Abmas said. “it’s not just them, it’s a lot of them. … For me, it’s proving them wrong but also just staying within our gameplan – not going too far out of it, just focusing on what we need to do to get a win.”

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/College-basketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap